You have probably heard us talking about STEM programs, designed to improve student skills and interest in the focus areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math. These areas are important due to a nationwide crisis: Americans just aren't studying or sticking with science and math topics, often preferring easier but lucrative areas like law and business. This may seriously impact our national competitiveness in the long tern. Success in STEM topics requires a level of persistency, focus, and discipline that is significantly tougher than most other subject areas, so students tend to be easily discouraged or scared away. Thus STEM programs try to encourage students to get more excited about these areas starting at younger ages, increasing both their excitement and level of confidence, improving the chance that students will eventually get a STEM degree. I think these programs are a great idea. But recently, they have been modified slightly in many districts to add Arts, changing STEM to STEAM. Is this a reasonable change?
We need to focus on the original goal: addressing the national STEM crisis. We simply do not have a similar crisis related to lack of arts graduates. If anything, we have the opposite: an over-abundance of spoiled middle class kids who think that maintaining a B average in the arts at a mid-ranking state college makes them the next Michelangelo. There just aren't enough jobs for artists (or art teachers) to absorb all these graduates. I'm not arguing that nobody should study art; it's a nice enrichment or recreational activity, but we need to recognize that if you're not at the very top of the field, making a decent living in an art-related area is very unlikely. In contrast, even the average STEM graduate is fully prepared for a solid and well-paying job. And of course I don't object to integrating art into STEM lessons when appropriate- creating computer art programs, for example, is a great engineering exercise-- but the STEM topics need to remain the focus and the key motivation.
I think STEAM arose because some politicians who were never good at STEM topics had fond memories of art classes in their youth. But adding unrelated topics to the STEM acronym dilutes the focus, and risks directing scarce funds targeted for STEM into other topics. If money targeted for the STEM crisis is going towards the arts instead, then we have missed the whole point of STEM. If we really want to let every busybody insert their pet subject into our STEM programs, instead of incrementally adding letters to the name, I propose a new acronym: STEAKS: Science, Technology, Engineering, And the Ktichen Sink. This way every politician can direct the funding to whatever subjects they find personally meaningful. But then STEAKS will be yet another random bureaucratic money hole, and we'll have to come up with new strategies to address the STEM crisis.